Exercise has a multitude of health benefits. Even if the main reason you exercise is to improve the composition of your body, you’ll still enjoy lots of “fringe benefits” like a healthier heart, improvements in bone density, better brain health and a lower risk for a number of health problems. What if you have a family history of hypertension and want to avoid getting it? If you’re at risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular exercise helps to lower blood pressure and may potentially keep hypertension at bay.
Most doctors recommend moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking, jogging or cycling to people who want to lower their blood pressure. What about high-intensity exercise? Is high-intensity exercise as effective for blood pressure control as moderate-intensity training?
Cardiovascular Benefits of High-Intensity Exercise
You already know high-intensity interval training is an invigorating workout and a real time saver. With high-intensity interval training you can get an effective cardiovascular workout in as little as 20 minutes. It certainly beats an hour of jogging or pedaling a stationary bike! Plus, high-intensity interval training improves anaerobic fitness as well as aerobic fitness. Plus, you get the benefits of the “after-burn,” for greater post-exercise energy expenditure.
What impact does high-intensity exercise have on blood pressure? A study involving 36 men compared brief, high-intensity training, moderate-intensity exercise and strength training in terms of their effects on blood pressure, heart health and overall health. The high-intensity group did vigorous interval workouts for a total of 40 minutes a week. The moderate-intensity group ran at a moderate pace for a total of 150 minutes per week. The men in the strength-training group did 150 minutes weekly of weight training using resistance challenging enough to build strength.
In terms of cardiovascular benefits, the high-intensity group showed greater improvements in V02 max, a measure of aerobic capacity, compared to the moderate-intensity and strength-training group. Systolic blood pressure dropped by an average of 8 mm Hg in all three groups while moderate-intensity exercise lowered diastolic blood pressure the most. The moderate-intensity group experienced greater improvements in blood lipid levels, while both the high-intensity and moderate-intensity group showed similar improvements in insulin sensitivity. As you might expect, the strength-training group was the only group that showed a significant increase in lean body mass.
The conclusion? High-intensity exercise improved cardiovascular functioning more than moderate-intensity exercise. Both forms of exercise lowered systolic blood pressure but the moderate-intensity group showed greater improvements in diastolic blood pressure. Longer periods of moderate-intensity exercise was better for improving lipids while both improved metabolic health by their effects on insulin sensitivity.
Another study published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular disease showed high-intensity training improved endothelial function, the ability of arteries to dilate, better than moderate-intensity training. Good endothelial function is important for blood pressure control and for heart and blood vessels health. HITT was also better in this study for reducing arterial stiffness, a common cause of mortality in people with high blood pressure.
People who have high blood pressure typically have activation of the “fight or flight” component of their nervous system. High-intensity interval training, in this study, blocked the release of hormones like norepinephrine that cause nervous system activity to go into overdrive more than moderate-intensity. Based on these factors, researchers in this study concluded high-intensity may be more beneficial for heart health and for preventing hypertension than moderate-intensity exercise.
Preventing High Blood Pressure: Is One Form of Exercise Better Than the Other?
Both forms of exercise have cardiovascular benefits and reduce risk factors for heart disease. Although more research is needed, high-intensity exercise seems to have an advantage over moderate-intensity exercise in terms of how it affects cardiovascular health, and, possibly, in terms of hypertension prevention.
The good news is a study showed high levels of leisure-time activity in general was linked with a lower risk for high blood pressure. Take advantage of that by moving around more during the day. Climb stairs, take short walks, jog in place when you have a free moment. Walk the dog. Simply staying active will reduce your risk for heart disease and high blood pressure.
In terms of structured workouts, enjoy the benefits of high-intensity workouts on some days and moderate-intensity exercise on others. When you’re pressed for time, HITT training is a way to get the job done quickly and effectively.
As you know, your body responds to change, so add in a moderate-intensity workout once or twice a week like a steady state step workout. Cardiovascular workouts of longer duration are best for optimizing lipids and raising HDL, the good form of cholesterol, while HITT training improves cardiovascular endurance and blood vessel function the best. They both have benefits! The key is not to “overdo” the moderate-intensity cardio to the point that you’re over-trained and releasing too much of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s never a healthy thing.
Regular cardiovascular workouts lower your risk for high blood pressure in another way – by helping control your body weight. Blood pressure often rises with an increase in body weight. Even if you already have high blood pressure, exercise can help. Research shows exercise lowers blood pressure as well as some prescription medications. Keep tabs on your blood pressure, especially if you have a family history, and stay active.
Preventive Cardiology. “Aerobic interval training reduces blood pressure and improves myocardial function in hypertensive patients” (2011)
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Oct;42(10):1951-8. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181d99203.
Am J Cardiovasc Dis. 2012: 2(2): 102-110.
J Hypertens. 2005 Feb;23(2):293-9.
Mayo Clinic. “High Blood Pressure”
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